Wildlife Photography: Lessons It’s Taught Me

Elaine Miller Bond, wildlife photographer Written by Elaine Miller Bond

Back in 2004, on a vacation in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park, I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. John L. Hoogland, renowned expert in prairie dogs. At the end of his presentation, I introduced myself. We started chatting about science writing (which I did in my former job) and field research, and during the middle of our conversation, he unexpectedly asked, “How would you like to take the photos for my next book?”

Dr. Hoogland started me on a journey. And wildlife photography grew into one of the greatest pleasures of my life. From black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains to honeybees in local gardens, I’ve learned how to take pictures of wild animals by going out and doing it. Below are a few lessons I absorbed while clicking away.

Do Your Research

Before I arrived at Dr. Hoogland’s field site, I read his book and other literature about prairie dog behavior. I learned that these colonial rodents will greet one another by kissing, that males will fight ferociously during the mating season, that a few exceptional female prairie dogs will nurse pups not-of-their-own (a behavior called “communal nursing”).

From my research, I made a list of all the shots I hoped to capture — a list that guided my photography much like an outline might guide a writer.

Landscape shots established the setting. Portraits introduced the characters. Action shots illustrated the plot lines. In the end, the hope of pulling my photos into a complete and moving story is what kept me going.

Red-shouldered hawk, Photo by Elaine Miller Bond

Red-shouldered hawk (Photo by Elaine Miller Bond)

Be Open

My photo wish list inspires me to get outside, but once I’m exploring, I often find it helpful to let go of the list and to “tune in” to what’s happening around me.

I walk slowly, scanning the habitat for signs of animal life. I look for movement, like ripples in the water or twitches in the grass. I also listen and have learned to identify the thud of falling acorns, the screech of the red-tailed hawk, and the “tik-tik-tik” of hummingbirds.

For me, being aware in the moment is the best way to find a subject to photograph. Managing to capture that subject in an artful, legible, evocative, and most importantly, respectful way comes from the heart.

Learn To Let Go

Sure, I might be guilty of shooting a little too much sometimes. But that’s the way I learn.

On an especially inspiring day, in a national park, for example, I might shoot more than 1,000 digital images. Not every image is a gem. Most are not. But the process of examining all the photos on my computer — the good, the bad, and the out-of-focus — is a practice in the art of “seeing.”

The next step, for me, is to delete most of the photos I will never use. Letting go can be particularly difficult when I still feel the rush of the experience: a peregrine falcon on the hunt or a mother mule deer nursing her fawn. So sometimes I wait and take time to reflect.

Still, the ability to press “delete” helps create a space for brighter and more engaging shots. It also provides a positive message to myself: that my best photos lie ahead of me.

Honeybee with sunflower. Location: Heather Farm Park, Walnut Creek, CA. Photo by Elaine Miller Bond

Honeybee with sunflower (Photo by Elaine Miller Bond)

Be Patient

The fact that ospreys don’t take flight on command or that foxes don’t come when we call them is part of the challenge and the beauty of wildlife photography.

The trick is to be just as patient with myself as I am with wild animals.

Believe me: I’ve missed many “dream” shots as a photographer. Once, I even came face-to-face with a golden eagle. It was as close as the other side of my car. But instead of snapping photos, I changed lenses. (I guess I thought I couldn’t focus that closely with a 400mm telephoto lens.) The bird flew away and took my confidence with it.

Eventually, I learned to forgive myself for the “eagle incident” — as well as the “heron foul-up,” the “owl mishap,” and other disappointments. In fact, I move on fairly quickly these days when I miss a photo opportunity.

I have even learned that missed shots can serve as inspiration for other types of artistic expression. The missed eagle shot inspired me to write and to draw, to spread my wings and get back outside, looking for something beautiful.

WNBA-SF member Elaine Miller Bond is the author/photographer of Running Wild and Living Wild — forthcoming board books from Heyday Books. She is the photographer for The Utah Prairie Dog (University of Utah Press, 2014). Visit her website at www.elainemillerbond.com


  1. Susan Gee Rumsey says

    Good advice in photography AND in life! Thanx for the inspiration!

  2. Great advice, Elaine. I agree the only way to learn is to get out there and capture images, (by actually doing). Deleting the not so good images has never been an issue, perhaps because “letting go” is easy for me. Nice article!

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